The Early Decision Decision
Updated: Aug 31
Early or regular decision? In addition to managing tests, grades, research, recommendations, resumes, essays, and deadlines, many students applying to U.S. colleges and universities grapple with this choice. One seasoned college advisor has written that “we live in an early decision world." In other words, early decision now shapes much of the university admissions landscape, and so students need to understand how to navigate it.
Early decision, which requires a student to commit to a college if admitted, is used by schools to determine “yield,” which is the number of students who, once accepted, will put down a deposit and attend. It suits some students’ needs, but it is fundamentally a tool to manage enrollment. Because it is binding, the more ED students a school accepts, the more certainty it has over the contours of the entering class. That’s one reason why, between the 2020 and 2021 application cycles, many schools increased their ED admittance rate as a hedge against the uncertainty of the pandemic. During this period, Cornell’s ED admit rate increased from 22.7% to 24%. Vanderbilt’s rose from 19.9% to 20.6%. The University of Pennsylvania’s rose from 18.0% to 19.5%, and Claremont McKenna’s grew from 28.2% to 35.1%. By contrast, the regular admit rate in 2021 was 8.7% at Cornell, 10.5% at Vanderbilt, 7.1% at Penn, and 10.4% at Claremont McKenna. The comparison shows a clear ED advantage. Not surprisingly, many selective schools, including Emory, Johns Hopkins and Northwestern, now fill more than half their freshman ranks through the early decision pool.
The numbers are enticing for students who have a clear first choice school or who want to avoid the months-long wait for results. Accordingly, the rise in ED admit rates has led to growth in ED applications in a cycle that has kept the ED process fiercely competitive even as its share of the admissions pie has grown. But ED is more than just a numbers game. It’s a strategic choice that students must consider carefully.
Because ED is binding, students who can’t pay full tuition and need to weigh financial aid offers should not apply. They risk being committed to a school they can’t afford.
Are you so sure of your college choice or, put differently, truly resolved about surrendering choice? And what if your priorities shift between November and May (a not uncommon occurrence among 17 and 18 year-olds)? Remember, if you’re accepted, you can’t change your mind. Reflect and review your needs, your goals, and your options. Committing early is convenient, but it may be limiting, too.
Applying early means you have as much as three months less than regular applicants to prepare your application. If you could use those months to improve your grades, retake tests, or prepare a stronger portfolio, applying in the regular decision pool might be a more strategic choice.
Is the increased chance of an ED acceptance worth the binding commitment it demands? For schools whose ED admit rate far exceeds that of the regular applicant pool, it may be worth it. For schools with a lesser disparity, the advantage may be less compelling.
Some schools offer Early Decision 2, which provides students with a later deadline, typically December 1, but demands the same binding commitment that standard ED requires if they’re accepted. Early Action is another arrangement with an early application deadline, but it is less restrictive than ED, with no requirement that students who are accepted must enroll.
ED is appealing, since it offers students the prospect of concluding the college madness early. But it comes with a price.
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